Mudlark Poster No. 79 (2009)

Two Poems by Alison Townsend

Jane Morris Poses For Rossetti’s Proserpine (1874)
and Demeter Faces Facts

Alison Townsend is the author of a collection of poetry, The Blue Dress (White Pine, 2003), and two chapbooks, What The Body Knows (Parallel Press, 2002) and, more recently, And Still The Music (Flume Press chapbook prize winner, 2007). Her new collection, Persephone In America, won this year’s Crab Orchard Open Poetry Competition Award and will be published in 2009 by Southern Illinois University Press. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and lives on four acres of oak and prairie savanna in the farm country outside Madison.

Proserpine (1874) was painted, oil on canvas, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828-1882. It is in the collection of the Tate Britain and on display there.

Jane Morris Poses For Rossetti’s Proserpine (1874)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Proserpine (1874)
He wanted to paint me.                                                               
Though I was married to his best friend, 
I felt his eyes follow me everywhere, 
his gaze like a sable brush on my skin.  
He undressed me, though it wasn’t me 
he wanted at first, but the way my body 
arranged itself under my clothes, my bones 
and muscles struts for the teal velvet 
drapery he dressed me in.  And my hair,
of course, that cloud of auburn 
I let loose, coppery strands 
floating around me like opium smoke.

I could tell right away he enjoyed 
making me pose, his directions godlike 
and stern, as he moved me about like a doll, 
saying, Turn this way, now that.  Look back 
at me over your shoulder as if I were the last 
person alive.  Now lift the pomegranate 
with one hand, but clasp your wrist 
with the other.  As if trying to stop yourself
from eating something forbidden.
As if you are offering it to me.

I must confess it bored me, standing 
that way for hours, hand bent slightly back, 
neck arched and aching.  I did what he said, 
lifting the fruit he’d slit with his penknife, 
its skin pulled back like a scab to reveal 
the wound’s garnet-pebbled surface.  It was even 
my idea to press my mouth to the seeds, staining 
it red, the tart juice puckering my lips 
into that downward pout he loved
because it was sensual and sullen.

I stared back at him from beneath downcast 
lashes as he painted, my eyes the color
of my robes, knowing he wanted me before he did, 
desire before it’s admitted an animal
that doesn’t know it ought to run, every 
moment ripe fruit about to be broken open. 

I stood there before him for hours, tendrils 
of ivy brushing my cheek.  I stared 
at him as he stared into me, pulling 
out a sulky darkness I hadn’t known 
I owned, the brush rarely still on the canvas, 
the scent of sweat and turpentine
and oil paint filling up the room. 

I was so good at keeping still 
you could hardly see me breathe 
as the brush slicked across my skin.  
I made time stop, the way it’s supposed 
to in art, that auburn hair I’d later 
drag across his body merging 
with the shadows of the other 
world looming there behind me.  

But though I may have seemed his prop 
or plaything, some object he arranged,
like the sticky fruit bought fresh each day, 
the footed brass dish, or the mirror 
behind me, reflecting light from the world above, 
we both knew he needed me. I was Prosperine, 
the woman mythologized, a goddess on canvas, 
flesh and blood frozen in time’s chipped 
gilt frame.  He couldn’t have painted 
the picture without me, my eyes on his, 
their teal green gone almost black 
and taking him down, pulling him under
into the sensual muck, everything about
the underworld different than he’d expected.

Demeter Faces Facts

No matter what you do, she’s a girl looking both ways
isn’t she?  When you really think about it.  When you stand

in her shoes, whether they are the open-toed, gold sandals
of Greek myth, platform wedges and Indian water-buffalo 

slides of your youth, or those sequined flip-flops 
that are new again this year, dangling from her slender, 

silver toe-ringed foot, while a tattooed dragonfly dries 
its blue wing on her ankle as if she were the first to ever 

dream it.  Thirteen now, but no matter how she dresses, 
she’s still your girl, isn’t she, standing between worlds, looking 

both ways, forward and back, like you taught her to before 
crossing a street?  But deciding herself.  And you’re 

her mother.  When you braid her hair, brushing out 
the night you know she’s taken inside her, picking bits 

of leaf and dirt from the long, sun-streaked strands, your fingers 
tangle, catching on the knots of all she hasn’t said.

And won’t say now, her lips sealed against you,
no matter how tempered your greeting or sweet your kiss, 

no matter how tender your maternal ministrations.  
Without even meaning to, she’s gone underground, 

the face whose curve you shaped with your own hand, 
fugitive, a sullen stranger’s you’ll never touch the same way 

again.  Still, you keep brushing and braiding, separating 
the strands and binding them together again, as if they were 

a rope by which you could hold her, tethering her to your body 
as she was once anchored and fed, your blood hers.  Before 

she got big enough to cross the street without looking back 
to catch your eye.  When you were still everything she needed.  

Copyright © Mudlark 2009
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